As I begin to formulate today's article I am reminded of Henry Ford's famous quote "Whether you think you can or think you can't. You're right". I was reminded of this quote in a client session this week where we discussed focusing attention on the "controllables" (things that one can control) in a challenging situation. One of those controllables is the message that you give yourself about how you expect to feel in any given situation.
I was reminded of the quote again when reviewing my research on stress in policing and thinking about the broad assumption that has been made about working in this challenging context. The assumption is that it is inherently stressful. This is, in fact, an assumption that researchers have failed to find evidence for(1.). Researchers have suggested that there is no significant difference in the occurrence of mental health disturbance among police officers and other "low-risk" professions such as banking or working in supermarkets. This is interesting because many people would, perhaps avoid a career in policing because they believe that they would not be able to cope with the job's assumed psychological demands. This isn't to say that a job in policing doesn't come without challenges. It certainly comes with bucket loads, but it does highlight the fact that you might experience just as much stress in another profession.
So where does Henry Ford come into this? Well the concern I have about the stress assumption is that, and I'm sure Mr Ford would agree, if we create and repeat a rhetoric of stress and ill health expectation then that is exactly what we will get, and we get it, sometimes, because of our belief that we will get it. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Assumed or inaccurate expectations (aka self-fulfilling prophecies) can be harmless. However, when they are coupled with inflexible thinking they can be very disruptive and create circumstances that are not wanted. If I assume a particular situation is going to be completely stressful I'm either going to miss out on the opportunities in that situation because I avoid going altogether or prime myself to only see, and therefore experience the rough stuff.
Of course, it is wise to think that a day in a job might be particularly challenging. If you're a police officer and you know you have a difficult job that day, or an athlete preparing for national trials, or a student preparing to face an exam your expectation of challenge, your focus on preparation, and your contingency planning are critical, but your assumption that you will be stressed or anxious throughout is a poor coping strategy. It's poor because you will only experience the not-so-nice stuff and you will completely edit out the moments of success, growth, and connection and it's so important to notice those moments.
I hope this week's article gives you some food for thought. It has me. I am thinking about how I adopt an SFP (self-fulfilling prophecy) when I talk about my lack of confidence in certain situations. For example, I know I do this when I talk about public speaking.
I realise that there may be tonnes of success, growth and connection that I have edited out. If I'm missing some good stuff I'm guessing that you might be too. So how do we adapt Henry Ford's words to remind ourselves of the stress assumption? Maybe it goes a bit like -
"If you think it's totally stressful or think it's not, you're right".
I suppose that leaves us to recognise the unhelpfulness of our stress assumptions and how they might add to an already challenging day.
References used in today's article.
1. Van der Velden, P. G., Rademaker, A. R., Vermetten, E., Portengen, M. A., Yzermans, J. C., & Grievink, L. (2013). Police officers: a high-risk group for the development of mental health disturbances? A cohort study. BMJ open, 3(1), e001720.